I have never thought all that much about personal sin. After all, I’m a product of Social Gospel Unitarianism. Sin, for many of those of us who were raised within the Social Gospel world view, is located outside the individual, in society. This is why people like me don’t spend much time worrying about our personal sinfulness, nor do we spend much time trying to achieve personal salvation. Instead, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the sin that is out there in the world, and we spend lots of time working for the salvation of the world. Prayer on bended knee admitting what nasty individuals we are? Nope, we don’t do much of that. Saving the earth from climate change, saving the whales, saving land from being strip malled? Oh yeah, we do lots of things like that.
Recently, I was talking to a friend, another religious liberal, who has been beset by small-minded people intent on doing damage to this friend of mine. My friend, in a moment of anguish, said something about the sinfulness of these small-minded people. This assessment contained the truth of my friend’s personal experience: these small-minded people were full of sin. The sin lay in two things: they did not treat my friend like a full human being, and when they had a choice about the way they could act, they chose to act hurtfully.
As a Social Gospeler who doesn’t think much about personal sin, I am tempted to explain away the actions of these small-minded people using the concepts of popular psychology: they must have something bad going on elsewhere in their lives to make them act this way, or perhaps they had troubled childhoods. As a twenty-first century Social Gospeler, I am especially prone to use the psychology of family systems theory: the problem lies, not in the individual, but in the social system that allows such behavior. But psychology is designed to explain why persons behave the way they behave; psychology does not make moral judgments, it does not say when something is good and right, or bad and wrong; psychology is not a substitute for morals and ethics.
I’m extremely reluctant to re-introduce the concept of personal sin into my religious life. I’m quite comfortable talking about the sins of society. I’m quite comfortable talking about evil, which I think of as those dark forces outside of us, and in some sense outside our control, that can force us to do things that are bad. Besides, the word “sin” has been so badly misused by so many people in our society that it’s almost unusable in ordinary conversation. Yet my friend really was sinned against; I was perfectly willing to agree that those small-minded people sinned when they made my friend’s life miserable.
What do you think? As a religious liberal, do you think about personal sin, or not? How do you define personal sin? I’d love to hear your thoughts.